So I settled in happily to watch the new TV adaptation, a 14-part version (Half-hour episodes. Fortunately, Masterpiece Classic is running them four-at-a-time, so it won't take all spring to watch.), secure in the knowledge that this time they'd do the whole story. Sure enough, there was resentful Miss Wade, seducing the equally resentful Tattycorum (Played by Doctor Who's Freema Agyeman, although Dickens might be quite surprised to learn the character is now black, and has battled the Daleks.) in a decidedly Lesbianic manner, and there was the homicidal Rigaud, played by Andy Serkis, who I'm told was in The Lord of the Rings with me although we never met, perhaps because I was so involved in the passionate love affair I was having with Gollum at the time. (See my account of our mad affair in Tolkien Resistance.) Andy also played the title role in the recent King Kong. Longtime readers and fans know of my affair with the original Kong, so Andy, I'm afraid, is just trying to get into my panties. Andy, all you have to do is ask, and bring a bottle.
I see a TV adaptation of Othello in Andrew Davies's resume. Can you imagine what he's done to that? "Turn off the light, and then turn off the light? If I turn this lamp off, I can always switch it back on again if I need to find the bathroom in the night. But once switch off Desdemona's lights, I do not know where the hell I keep her bulbs, to replace her burnt-out filaments, should I wish to sit up late and read a book."
So I know about Charlie. You don't rewrite Dickens. You're safer rewriting Sondheim than Dickens, and Sondheim is still alive to come and get you. (and he will!)
One of the great literary mysteries is: why did the enormously prolific Dickens write no novels for the last five years of his life, and, when he did finally start a new book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he never even bothered to finish it? The answer is so obvious. As this famous painting, Dickens's Daydream, shows, it was because all he could think about was me, crowding his fictional creations right out of his mind. Sorry. I am now the only person left on earth who knows whodunit to Edwin Drood. (The butler, high on opium.)
So, who has done a good job of adapting Dickens? Well, at the risk of sounding philistine or Hollywoodish (I am, after all, Hollywood Incarnate), I'd have to say that David O. Selznick, 74 years ago in 1935, made two of the greatest-ever Dickens films, with his productions for MGM of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, though it didn't hurt that he was filming two of Dickens's three greatest books. (Along with Great Expectations.)
Of course, Selznick's films benefited from great casting. Basil Rathbone was born to play Mr. Murdstone and the Marquis St. Evremonde, and Edna May Oliver was surely who Dickens himself had in mind for Aunt Betsy Trotwood. How could anyone be better than Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton? Elsa Lanchester improved everything she was ever in, and she graced David Copperfield the same year she was The Bride of Frankenstein. Blanche Yurka was terrifying as Madame DeFarge.
And then there was W. C. Fields as Wilkins Micawber.
Charles Laughton was originally cast as Micawber but, fortunately for mankind, he cocked it up so badly he was fired, and Fields was brought in. Even if the rest of the film had been horrible, and it was wonderful, it would be a classic for Fields alone. One finds oneself cursing Dickens for not making the role a larger one. When Fields as Micawber exposes the machinations of the evil Uriah Heep (Played by lovable Roland Young, Cosmo Topper himself.), you want to cheer and cry, but you're busy laughing. Many great actors have played Micawber since, from Simon Callow (Callow, not Cowell!) to Bob Hoskins, to others, but all pale beside Bill Fields, a man whose tastes in libations I can only be inspired by.
A Tale of Two Cities, my favorite of Charlie's books, has been well done since certainly, particularly in a 1957 version with Christopher Lee and Dirk Bogarde (Lee, although best known as Dracula, seems to have made a cottage industry out of playing old Basil Rathbone roles.), nonetheless the 1935 version has never been topped. The scenes of Paris under The Terror reminded me all too well of my first visit there, for my induction into the French Legion of Honor. (I am officially a Genius in France.) This photo of the festivities at the ceremony honoring me (Which I happened accidentally to miss, being a tad passed out in a wine cellar on the Left Bank at the time) could almost be a still from the movie. Too bad. It would have been an exhibitionism high for me, as I'm told I was expected to give head publically, right there on the platform!
Anyway, the point is that Selznick had the sense to leave Dickens's dialogue alone.
Who else did Dickens well? David Lean. His Great Expectations is the definitive adaptation of Dickens's greatest book, as well as Alec Guinness's film debut. And his Oliver Twist is the only one to see.
Here we see Pip in Great Expectations, rolling the most memorable character, Miss Havishamwow, brilliantly played by Martita Hunt, into the room where her long-ago wedding reception was to have been held, with the cake, the place settings, and even one of the wedding guests, still sitting out, waiting for the groom that will never come, so to speak.
For years people have told me that I'm a natural to play Miss Havishamwow. I have no idea why, unless it's because my own housekeeping is sometimes a bit underdone. After all, she was left waiting at the alter, never married, and bitterly hated all men. I lost count of my husbands somewhere around number 10, and if there's anything I love better than booze, it's men. Still, I did play a similar character, Miss Havadrink, in Great Libations. Poor Miss Havadrink was left waiting for years by the liquor store delivery man. Here I am telling Estella "Make him get you drunk, my dear."
The best Dickens dramatization I've ever seen was the 1980 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby, which was 8 hours long. They basically just performed the whole book, neither changing nor omitting a single word or punctuation mark of it's 900 pages. There is an excellent TV recording of it, with wonderful Roger Rees and charming Emily Richards as Nicholas and Kate Nickleby.
Back in 1994, Little Dougie happened, by chance and coincidence, to meet both Roger and Emily two days apart: Emily in Bath Spa, England, where she was performing in MacBeth with Sir Derek Jacobi, and then encountering Roger in the audience of Damn Yankees on Broadway 48 hours later, in New York City. What are the odds? The RSC Nicholas Nickleby remains the gold standard for mounting Dickens, well that is, for dramatizing Dickens. I remain the gold standard for mounting him. And the RSC used ONLY dialogue written by Dickens, and a hell of a lot of his narrative passages as well. Here's a Phiz illustration of the rousing, crowd-pleasing scene where Nicholas beats the crap out of the vicious, evil Wackford Squeers, liberating the lads of Dotheboys Hall. Well, when a man has "Wack" right in his name, what can you do but wack him off? It got cheers every night! The audiences loved seeing Nick wack him off. (Shift the spaces around, and he becomes a statement of Henry Ford's homphobic employment policies: Wack Ford's Queers.)
Recently there was a darn good movie version of Nickleby, with a towering performance by the awesome Christopher Plummer as the evil Ralph Nickleby. Admittedly, Nathan Lane made a disconcertingly American Vincent Crummles, and the movie is like a Reader's Digest condensation of the novel (Look in vain for the Mantelinis), but they kept Dickens's dialogue, and had a grand cast.
Here's Tom Courtney as Newman Noggs (Tom plays Little Dorrit's father in the new version. He is not what's wrong with it.), Anne Hathaway (Not the famous one who married Shakespeare, but just some actress.) as Madeline Bray, gorgeous Charlie Hunam as Nicholas, and good old Barry Humphries as Dame Edna as Mrs. Crummles in that movie. (When you plop Barry into a film, genders often get confusing.)
And here, from everyone's favorite part of the story, the interlude with Nicholas in the Vincent Crummles Acting Company, is Alan Cummings as Mr. Folair, Jamie Bell, the boy from Billy Elliot and King Kong, as Smike, Charlie Hunam again, and Barry Humphries once more.
So get a clue adaptors and dramatists: if, even for one second, you're tempted to think that you can "improve" the dialogue of Charles Dickens, here's a fact: you can't! Leave it alone, you dips. And Davies, no one ever said "You cramp my style" in 19th Century England. NO ONE!
That doesn't mean you can't have some creative fun with Dickens. Little Dougie is deep into reading Dan Simmons's gigantic (772 pages) new novel Drood, a horror fantastia purporting to portray the last five years of Dickens's life as seen through the laudanum-addled eyes of Wilkie Collins, which continues the literary conceit of calling me "Ellen Ternan." It's an Amadeus-like tale (Collins is wildly jealous of Dickens's talent. Wilkie darling, I loved The Woman in White, even if beige would have been more appropriate. Salieri wishes he could have written The Moonstone.) which mixes the historical facts with a wild tale of horror in a city-beneath-the-city, that is rollicking good reading, and a current best seller. Pick up a copy and enjoy - for weeks!
And Andrew Davies, please do not adapt A Tale of Two Cities. No one is waiting to hear Sydney Carton at the guillitine say "The thing I'm gonna do now is a whole lot better than all the stuff I've done previously," nor even a pithy, "Hey Robespierre, fuck you!"
Cheers darlings. See you at the HuffPo on Friday.